A great performance goes a long way. When an actor really sinks into a role — unraveling their character layer-by-layer to reveal their deepest, truest selves — it adds a tremendous amount of life to a movie. A script can be elevated with the help of an actor willing to discover the soul of their character buried deep beneath the words on the page. Likewise, a movie that relies heavily on silence can be strengthened by an actor capable of bringing every emotion that the character feels to the forefront in numerous different ways despite it, and “Sound of Metal” does just that. It puts all of its faith in Riz Ahmed to carry its story from start to finish, and he does so in a way that’s truly unforgettable. With phenomenal sound design and an emotional performance from Ahmed, “Sound of Metal” is a profound story worth putting at the top of your watchlist this year.
Directed by Darius Marder (best known as the co-writer of “The Place Beyond the Pines”), “Sound of Metal” centers on Ruben (Ahmed), a recovering addict and drummer of a punk band who travels around playing shows with his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). One day, though, he starts to experience intermittent hearing loss, and a specialist explains to him that it’s only going to worsen. After hearing this news, he starts to panic about his career and life, feeling uncertain about what lies ahead for him. So, in an effort to help him, Lou checks him into a sober house for the deaf, where he can learn to adapt to this new life without hearing.
The one aspect of this film that immediately stands out from the get-go is the sound design. Supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker (who also worked as a Foley artist on “Gravity” and “Arrival”), along with his team, immerse viewers into the film by placing them directly in Ruben’s shoes. As he begins losing his hearing, the background noises around him become muffled. Though the film starts out with a bang, throwing viewers right into the middle of one of their shows, the sound of the crowd yelling and the music blaring soon fades to nothing.
There’s an intimacy to this whole experience that feels incredibly realistic, which is largely due to Marder’s patience as a director. He handles Ruben’s story with care, allowing the highs and lows of it all to unfold naturally. In doing so, he allows Ahmed to truly dive deep into Ruben and this unpredictable moment in his life, exploring his innermost fears that lie far below his punk rock, take-no-shit exterior. Largely, it’s the fear of the unknown. Where will his life lead him now? What can he do about this? Is there a way to fix it? All of these questions are constantly swirling around him, and Ahmed expresses the difficulty of grappling with them all throughout the story.
“Sound of Metal” takes its time unraveling its narrative, never rushing through the important moments that Ruben is experiencing and not following the more linear path these kinds of movies tend to have, either. It’s a very realistic look at how two things can exist at once: He desperately wants to get his hearing back, but also finds himself making strides in accepting this new chapter in his life and, possibly, even moving forward. It’s in these moments where Marder lets Ruben’s complexities run wild, making this film an enjoyable watch because it feels more grounded than most.
Occasionally, the film does hit a few bumps in the narrative road that cause it to lag a bit, but it’s never enough to pull you out of the compelling journey at its core. With the help of Ahmed, along with a phenomenal supporting cast, Marder’s film is one of the biggest standouts from this year. And, hopefully, Ahmed gets award recognition for his moving performance.
Featured photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.